On Thanksgiving we celebrate with family and think about all the things we are thankful for in our lives. During the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims celebrated everything that they were thankful for in the New World. To understand why the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving, it is important to know their story.
The story of the Pilgrims goes back to King Henry VIII of England. Although, it could be said, it goes back even farther than that to when Christianity was brought to England by Roman traders in the 1st Century AD. By the time King Henry VIII took the throne, England was Catholic and followed the religious leadership of the Pope in Rome.
After becoming king, King Henry VIII had married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. He had gotten permission from the Pope for the marriage because it was illegal to marry your brother’s widow within the Catholic Church at the time.
King Henry VIII’s greatest wish was to have a son to be an heir to the throne. Unfortunately, Queen Catherine could not give him a son. While she had six pregnancies, only one of her children survived. King Henry VIII wasn’t happy because she was a girl.
The king decided that he was being punished for marrying his brother’s widow, so he asked the Pope to annul the marriage. The Pope refused, so King Henry VIII separated from the Catholic Church and set up the Church of England with himself as the leader.
In 1533, he ended his marriage to Catherine in hopes of remarrying and having a son. As we know from history, King Henry VIII married five more times, executed two of his wives, and had three children - two girls and one boy.
King Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, became king when his father died. He was only 9 years old, so a council was appointed to run the country until he was old enough to rule. Edward VI wasn’t involved in the government very much, but he was passionate about his religion. He was a Protestant. The Protestant religion had begun in 1517 when Martin Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Germany. The 95 Theses explained everything about the Catholic Church that Martin Luther didn’t like. He believed the Catholic Church was corrupt, and people should look to the Bible instead of the Church for guidance.
The Protestant Reformation in England began when King Henry VIII separated the English government from the Catholic Church. It continued under his son, Edward VI. Edward VI pushed to move the country farther away from Catholicism by taking away the brightly colored decorative parts of the religion including stained glass windows and brightly colored robes for priests. He also allowed priests to get married. Then, at only 15, Edward died. People think he died from a combination of tuberculosis and the measles.
Edward VI’s will appointed his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as the next ruler of England. She, like him, was a pious Protestant. Lady Jane Grey became queen at 15, but only ruled for 9 days before Edward’s sister, Mary, took the crown from her. Because she was the oldest daughter of King Henry VIII, Mary was seen as the rightful ruler of England and had the support of the nobles and the people.
Unlike Edward VI and Lady Jane, Mary was Catholic. She earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” because she ruthlessly persecuted the Protestants of England. She executed over 300 Protestants.
Queen Mary was unable to have children, so when she died in 1558, her sister, Elizabeth became queen. Elizabeth was a Protestant, like her brother, King Edward VI. However, Elizabeth was not as pious as her brother. She didn’t care what religion people practiced as long as they did it privately. The Catholics who remained in England did this and were ignored by Queen Elizabeth I. However, after Mary’s death, many Protestants who had fled, came back to England. Some Protestants didn’t think Queen Elizabeth I had reformed the Church of England enough. They thought it was still too similar to Catholicism. They loudly protested the Church of England. These people became known as Puritans because they wanted to purify the church. Queen Elizabeth I worked to prevent the Puritans from preaching publicly.
When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, King James VI of Scotland became the king of England. The Puritans were hopeful that King James VI would reform the Church of England to move away from Catholicism. However, the king refused to meet with Puritan leaders and threatened to banish Puritan preachers from England. Practicing any religion outside of the Church of England was illegal.
Some people wanted to separate from the Church of England. These people were called Separatists. One group of Separatists, located in a small village called Scrooby, decided to move to Holland in order to practice their religion. About 100 people from Scrooby moved to Holland in 1608.
Life in Holland was harder than the Separatists from Scrooby had imagined. They had a difficult time finding work and fell into poverty. They were worried that their children would grow up speaking Dutch and forget about their English heritage. They also disapproved of Dutch culture because it didn’t strictly follow the Bible. Finally, Holland was a part of the Spanish Empire, which was Catholic, and the Separatists were worried that Spain would invade Holland and persecute anyone who was not Catholic.
The Separatists wanted to move somewhere with no other people where they could practice their religion freely. A person that goes on a long journey is called a pilgrim, so we call them Pilgrims. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any money, so they made a deal with investors. The Pilgrims would send raw materials from the New World to the investors in England for seven years in exchange for passage across the ocean.
The Pilgrims has purchased a small, old ship called The Speedwell in Holland. They sailed this ship to England to meet their new ship, The Mayflower. Both The Speedwell and The Mayflower were supposed to sail to the New World, but The Speedwell was leaking and could not make the journey. The Mayflower carried 30 sailors and 102 passengers. Only 41 of the passengers were from the original Scrooby group that had fled from England. The other 61 passengers were adventurers who were looking for a better life in the New World.
The Mayflower left England on September 6, 1620. The journey was very difficult. Many of the passengers were seasick. There were no toilets or running water on the ship. People had to wash their bodies with salt water from the ocean. They didn’t wash their clothes for the entire journey.
Everything people ate or drank had to be carried on the ship. Water was stored in barrels, but after a while the water was not safe to drink. This meant that everyone, even kids, drank beer. They ate salted meat, dried peas, dried beans, hard biscuits, cheese and butter. If the weather was calm they could cook their food in a small oven called a brazier, but it was unsafe to have a fire on the ship during rough weather, so they ate their food cold.
The most important Pilgrims got to sleep in the captain’s quarters on beds, but everyone else had to sleep on the ground. Some people even slept in a little boat attached to The Mayflower called a shallop. There wasn’t a lot of room to sleep. It was hot and uncomfortable.
One exciting event happened on the voyage. A baby boy was born. His parents named him Oceanus.
After 66 days on The Mayflower, the Pilgrims reached land. They had planned to end up just north of Virginia, England’s first colony. They had heard about the fertile farming land and mild weather from explorers such as John Smith. Unfortunately, they landed about 200 miles north of Virginia.
The first place the Pilgrims landed was the tip of Cape Cod. Some people wanted to stay there, but the group decided to look for a better place because the water near the shore was not deep enough for ships. There were also signs of Native Americans nearby, and there weren’t very many fresh water sources.
On December 16, 1620, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Harbor. Legend says that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, but there is no primary source evidence that this actually happened.
Before the Pilgrims left the ship, the men wrote and signed The Mayflower Compact. It set up the rules for their new community. An important rule was that the people got to choose their own leader. This was different than in England.
The Mayflower Compact also pledged the Pilgrims’ allegiance to King James VI in England. This would have been important because they were so far away from their planned destination. They didn’t want the king to think they were abandoning England.
Once on land, the Pilgrims began building their houses right away. The first house built was the Common House. At first it was used to store tools. The men building the houses would sleep in it until their homes were done. Eventually it would be used as a church and a hospital.
It is important to remember that the Pilgrims were ordinary people from England. Most of them were not skilled at building houses. It was also winter, and bad weather often prevented them from working. It took them 26 days to build the Common House.
Because it was winter, there wasn’t time for every family to build a house right away. Many families stayed on the ship during the first winter. The families that did have homes built had other families or men living with them.
The houses they built were very simple and were modeled after their old homes in England, but smaller. There was one room with a loft upstairs. The roof was covered with straw. They didn’t have glass, so their windows were made out of paper or cloth. They would rub animal fat on the paper or cloth to make it translucent, so light could come through the window.
It was a cold, hard winter for the Pilgrims. Half of the Pilgrims and crewmen died during the first winter. Most of them died of pneumonia.
On March 16, 1621, the Pilgrims met their first Native American friend. He spoke English and knew English customs. His name was Samoset. He was a lesser chief of the Abenaki Tribe located in Maine. He had learned English from the English traders and fishermen around his village.
Samoset was in the area visiting the Wampanoag Tribe. The Wampanoag Tribe had lived there for over 12,000 years. He explained that the land the Pilgrims were living on had belonged to the Patuxet tribe. The entire tribe had been killed by a plague four years earlier. The Pilgrims believed that this meant that God wanted them to live in this land. In reality, the plague had been brought by European traders who had arrived in 1616.
Samoset told the Pilgrims about one member of the Patuxet tribe that had survived the plague. His name was Squanto. He had been captured by Europeans and taken first to Spain and then to England. He learned English while in Europe, and had returned to the New World.
Squanto became a very good friend to the Pilgrims. He showed them how to catch fish, how to hunt the wild animals of the area, where to find wild herbs, and how to plant corn. He also introduced the Pilgrims to the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, Chief Massasoit. The Wampanoag and the Pilgrims made a peace treaty. They promised not to attack each other, not to steal from each other, and to help each other if they were attacked by an enemy. This peace treaty would last for fifty-four years.
On April 5, 1621, The Mayflower set sail to return to England. The captain offered to take people back to England, but none of the Pilgrims left.
That fall, the Pilgrims wanted to celebrate their good harvest. They sent men out hunting as part of their preparations for the feast. The Wampanoag heard the shots and believed the Pilgrims were under attack. Chief Massasoit and 90 braves rushed to the village to help. When they arrived, they were invited to join the feast.
There wasn’t enough food, so Chief Massasoit sent his warriors out to bring back five deer. The rest of the menu didn’t look like our Thanksgivings today either. They ate wild turkey, geese, ducks, lobsters, oysters, vegetables, and dried fruits. The celebration lasted for three days. It was a party with games, races, and even a small parade.
The Native Americans and the Pilgrims became important trading partners. Their peace lasted until 1675 when warriors from the Wampanoag tribe, led by their chief, King Philip, attacked the village of Swansea. King Philip, also called Metacom, was a son of Chief Massasoit who had entered into the peace treaty with the Pilgrims.
King Philip’s War against the English lasted for less than a year. He had been trying to stop the English from pushing the Native Americans out of their land, but when he was killed in 1676, the war ended.
Over the years, more and more people moved to the New World. Some were looking for religious freedom, but most just wanted a chance at a better life. By 1732, the thirteen colonies that would become the United States had all been founded.
The story of the Pilgrims started long before 1620 when The Mayflower set sail, and it continues even to this day. The Pilgrims were a large part of shaping our culture. Their influence can be seen across the country, especially as we celebrate Thanksgiving.
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